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Indonesia’s National Gallery Hosts Art of Refugees, Highlighting Migrant Plight


The National Gallery of Indonesia is usually associated with such artists as Raden Saleh, Affandi and other icons of the nation’s artistic history. This month it plays host to the works of asylum seekers and refugees in an exhibition entitled Berdiam/Bertandang, which means Stay/Visit.

With about 13,800 people identified as “persons of concern” by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) residing in Indonesia, the exhibit aims to raise awareness of their plight while they wait in an uncertain and increasingly prolonged “transit.”

The exhibition is partly the culmination of a program called Art for Refuge, established by 16-year-old Indonesian high school student Katrina Wardhana, to teach art to children and young people at the Jakarta-based Roshan Learning Center for refugees. 

“I felt art was like a really powerful tool where refugees in Indonesia can share their stories,” she told VOA.

Many from Afghanistan

About half of the refugees in Indonesia are from Afghanistan. Mumtaz Khan Chopan, a professional artist who arrived in Indonesia in 2013 and whose paintings were part of Berdiam/Bertandang, said being an artist in Afghanistan holds extreme risks. There are few art institutions, he said, restricting opportunities to “go and practice and talk to likeminded people, artists.” 

“Most of the people in Afghanistan believe that art is not a valuable thing,” he added. “Not only valuable, it’s not even allowed … but this does not mean that Afghanistan doesn’t have art.”

Binam, a 17-year-old from Afghanistan whose name has been changed to protect his identity, came to Indonesia three years ago as an unaccompanied minor and lives in a shelter provided by the UNHCR. He learned photography as part of Art for Refuge and his work appeared in Berdiam/Bertandang. 

“It’s my first work, exhibition and it’s a big exhibition,” he said. “I feel proud.”

​Stuck in Indonesia

Indonesia has historically been a transit country for refugees seeking asylum in third countries, particularly Australia. While Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it also does not deport asylum seekers and refugees back to potential danger. Jakarta’s historical approach to refugees has been described by anthropologist Antje Missbach as a form of “benign neglect.”

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in January 2017 signed a presidential decree that for the first time acknowledged the presence of a refugee community in Indonesia as distinct from “illegal immigrants” and gave directives to various government institutions regarding their respective responsibilities in managing humanitarian aid. They continue to be denied the right to work, however, and opportunities for formal education are limited.

Moreover, resettlement in third countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada are increasingly unavailable to refugees residing in Indonesia. As of late 2017, the UNHCR reportedly began telling the refugee community there that resettlement elsewhere was highly unlikely for at least 10 to 15 years, if ever. 

“We have to live in shelter[s] because in here we can’t work,” Binam said. “And now there is no resettlement for the refugee from other countries.”

According to UNHCR data, 269 out of almost 4,000 refugee children in Indonesia are enrolled in accredited national schools. The work of the Roshan Learning Center and other community-led education initiatives are therefore vital. Mitra Salima Suryono, a spokesperson for UNHCR Jakarta, told VOA that “by doing such activities, it’s good because it keeps their hopes alive. What’s more important is that friendship between Indonesians and the refugees are getting tighter with initiatives like this.”

Building relationships

The main goal of Art for Refuge is boosting understanding about refugees in the broader community, said Wardhana, its founder.

“Having just found out about refugees only quite recently after my involvement at Roshan, I realized how unaware and un-talked-about the issue is here in Indonesia,” she said.

Chris Bunjuman, a photographer who taught teenagers through the program, encouraged his students to attend a public festival in Jakarta and take photos of 40 people with mustaches as an assignment. 

“Most of the time they always stay in the same community … they don’t really interact with people around them because of the language barrier,” he said. “Those assignments really pushed them, with their thinking … eventually they got out of their comfort zone.”

Alia Swastika, the curator of Berdiam/Bertandang, said that “the problem in Indonesia is that when we discuss about refugees they always think, ‘Oh, we have many other different problems that need to be solved and these are more related to Indonesian people themselves.’”

“People in Indonesia they are educated, of course they are very nice, but there is one thing they don’t know much about refugee[s] … what they are doing here,” said Chopan, the Afghan artist, who says he has found empowerment through the creative scene in Indonesia. “If I introduce myself to a person that I am a refugee, I get different reaction to if I say I am an artist.”

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